Post-election stress is real.
With the stunning announcement that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump defeated Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, social media channels erupted with cheers and jeers for what turned out to be one of the most fascinating presidential elections in American history.
If you’re like most Americans, you took to Facebook and Twitter to express your opinions. As you read more and more reactions from friends and family, anger and frustration glowed like a fire.
Each time a new notification popped up, you anxiously checked it to see who liked, loved or hated your opinion. And with each negative response, your fire grew and grew until you just couldn’t handle it.
The emotional word wars being fought in homes, on websites, and in public places are known as post-election stress. This stress manifests itself in several forms; anger is the most recognizable.
And when that anger is handled in the wrong way or directed at the wrong person, your inner inferno burns so wildly you incinerate friendships within seconds.
Perhaps what is most unique about this year’s presidential election is individuals’ emotional fires joined to build a nationwide mega-blaze, the likes of which led Colorado-based psychologist Dr. Deb Sandella to say, “Anger is a big, emotional thing and I think it’s one of the things that’s gotten stirred up in this election. I’m 66 years old and I’ve never seen an election like this before.”
We talked with Deb about post-election stress to get an idea of why it happens, how the brain works, what happens when we get angry and how we can work through anger and other extreme emotions we might be feeling in the days and weeks following Trump’s victory.
How the Brain Works
Our brains have several different parts to them. Say you were a Trump supporter and the early returns showed that Trump was behind. You start to feel anxious and stressed out – this is your “reptile” brain kicking in, Deb says. You feel like you could die – or maybe kill someone, and you might even say those words out loud.
You’d never actually bring death into the mix. However, you do feel pretty hyped up – your heart is pumping faster, your breathing speeds up and you feel warm.
As that primitive part of your brain processes what’s happening, the right side of your brain also emits emotions. Not necessarily the extreme, primal emotions of your reptilian brain, but emotions nonetheless.
You’re feeling pretty agitated, so you call up a friend who is also voting for Trump and you dump your anxiety on her. As you express how you’re feeling – “I don’t know what I’ll do if Hillary wins. It scares me.” – you start to realize how crazy you sound. This is your left brain kicking in, Deb says.
In an ideal world, this is how it should all go down. You shouldn’t feel the need to head to Facebook and launch a 400-word rant on why Republicans or Democrats are the world’s most evil people.
However, as we all know pretty well by now, we don’t really live in an ideal world. Rather than working through our emotions, we dump them on our social media pages and prepare ourselves for verbal war.
“Everyone is riled up,” Deb told us. “I think that this is the critical piece, that we have to deal with our anger first, because otherwise, we’re just creating a war.”
Why is This Election Different?
Getting to the bottom of the pure rage or ecstasy people have felt over the past few days is a matter of our desire to be part of a community.
When we asked Deb why, from a psychological perspective, this election has been different from elections past, she referred to something she heard from several different people this week. The wave of emotions we’re feeling now is similar to what Americans experienced in the weeks following 9/11.
However, there’s one big difference between what happened in the aftermath of 9/11 and the aftermath of the Trump-Hillary battle, and it’s that difference that turned our country, emotionally speaking, upside down.
“During 9/11, we were united, and that creates positive feelings and good health. This election has done the opposite – we were divided and we haven’t come together,” Deb told us. “There is a greater emotional dissonance in our country than I’ve ever seen.”
But why is unity important? In a country where democracy is the method of selecting leaders, competing parties are healthy, right?
Deb says it all goes back to our brain.
“We are wired, neurologically, for cooperation. We really are,” she said. “And we’re wired that way so we can get along and the species will survive.”
So, physiologically speaking, we’re feeling all kinds of stress, anger, and frustration because we are divided. This sense of dissonance and division affects us physically, too.
“When we have an experience that is so counter to our need for cooperation, it goes against our physical selves and we suffer physically,” Deb told us.
We get so mad our bodies shake. We feel a flaming ball of stress in our chest. Our muscles tighten up.
There’s another aspect to this too: mirror cells.
Our brains have mirror cells, which are what gives us the ability to empathize. So, when we see a commercial for our candidate, we are strengthened by the feeling of being in the battle with our presidential hopeful. However, when we see negative ads about our candidate, they have the opposite effect.
“These mirror cells cause us to automatically be empathic and to imitate what we see and hear,” she says. “So, with all the negativity in commercials, newspapers and on Facebook, we are programmed to start imitating that. Depending on what side we’re on, it causes that negativity to spread and dissonance.”
The key to bringing people together, she said, is to dig into how we’re feeling, identify our specific emotions and let them out in a positive, safe way.
“That’s why now, it is so important for us to come together or we won’t heal,” Deb told us.
When We Get Angry, We Become Animals
Whether you voted with Trump, sided with Hillary or went the third party with Stein or Johnson, you’ve probably had your moments of anger and happiness.
The worst thing you can do, from a psychological standpoint, is to express that anger to someone who disagrees with you.
“If we take the anger into a debate with someone we know is going to fight, we become stuck and we don’t go anywhere,” Deb says. “Nothing is really coming from it. At that point, it’s not productive.”
What’s really happening is that our reptile brains have kicked in and we’re acting, more or less, like animals. The friend you’ve known and loved for years all of a sudden becomes a bitter enemy you never want to speak with again. Your parents, aunts and uncles become pure evil in your eyes and you just want to tear them to pieces.
“It’s the ugly part of us that does not feel like it’s a part of us. It feels inhuman. It’s not just that friend who is sitting across from you who has it. You have it and everybody has it,” Deb told us. “And when we get triggered enough, it shows up, then we have this awareness of, ‘Wow, did that really come out of my mouth? Did I say that?’”
So, if it seems like your best friend hates you with a fury you’ve never experienced, or you swear you’re leaving your significant other because of their beliefs, just remind yourself that the primal part of your brain has taken over and the emotions you’re feeling will soon pass.
There’s good news, though. You don’t have to play that waiting game where you ride out your monster state, Incredible Hulk-style, until you return to normal. You can take simple, basic steps to alleviate your anger and have productive conversations about the 2016 presidential election.
How to Work Through Anger
Think of your initial reaction to the elections as unfiltered wine – nobody has come through to analyze and strain out the contents floating about in what will soon be a well-rounded, enjoyable bottle of wine.
Your brain, as we mentioned earlier, works the same way. Your primal instinct and right brain emote at will – it’s like a constantly flowing river, Deb says – and your left brain is waiting for you to hold it together long enough so it can analyze and work out the emotions you’re feeling.
1. Don’t Keep the Emotions Locked Away
The last thing you want to do is push those emotions down and not express them.
“We want to let that river flow. When those emotions flow through, they bring us information and expire and evaporate naturally and organically,” Deb says. “When we create a dam in the river, for whatever reason those feelings get stuck in the body and that’s when they go underground and do emotional and physical damage in our body.”
2. Take a Deep Breath
To resolve all those emotions and allow our left brain to come in and process them, we need to have some sort of physical release. First tip? It’s simpler than you think.
“Breathe. When we breathe, we connect the involuntary and voluntary brain,” Deb told us. “Through focusing on controlling our breathing, we actually can begin to feel a sense of our body again and start to calm our primitive alarm systems.”
3. Express Your Emotions With Words
Third, Deb says, take some time to write out or speak your anger and frustrations. You can do this by yourself or in a group. Grab your laptop or a piece of paper and just let it fly. Be as specific as you can; it will help you know exactly what’s going on inside you.
As you write out or talk out your emotions, the anger and frustration your body is carrying will start to dissipate. You’ll hear what you’re feeling and your left brain will start to process everything.
4. Get Outside
Afterward – or even before, if that’s what you need – do some physical activity. Some people prefer working out, Deb said, while others (herself included) head outside.
“There is so much research coming out saying that experiencing the beauty of nature has positive beneficial effects on our body. It also promotes cooperation and a greater sense of nearness to the people around us,” she says.
The Consequences of Ignoring Our Anger
By merging our emotional expression and physical activity, we allow the entire body to process what’s happening in our minds. The benefits are short- and long-term, too. Any old wounds we push down will be stored in our bodies. Anger, in particular, is a dangerous emotion if left unprocessed.
“There was research done by a couple of guys who studied research on heart disease up through 2013,” Deb says, “and they found that when we stuff our anger there’s a higher risk for cardiovascular disease.”
That’s right; not dealing with your anger can literally create a broken heart.
How to Handle Our Relationships: Compassion and Humility
Once you have your emotions in check, you can start to have civil, productive discussions with friends and family.
As you talk with them, you should keep two things in mind: Ask for and give compassion, and stop trying to be right.
Compassion: Not Quite a Cure-All, But It’s Pretty Awesome
We’d love to know the data on how many people using Facebook in the past week have deleted comments or posts pertaining to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. We’re guessing the number would be much higher than we think.
What happens when we take back a comment? We analyze our emotions and come to the conclusion that we probably shouldn’t have said what we said.
This micro-example of resolving our emotions, however, doesn’t mean we’ve reversed the effect of our words, whether they were on Facebook for ten minutes or came out during a face-to-face discussion.
As crazy as our personal and national dialogue during presidential elections is, we need to have the courage to ask our friends and family for compassion.
Deb told us about an experience she had in the days following Trump’s victory. She and her assistant were having a conversation about the elections and anger started rising.
“I told her that I needed her to know that I was experiencing intense feelings about the election and that I was angry,” Deb says. “I asked her if she would be willing to have compassion on me, and I told her I wasn’t angry with her, but with what happened in the election.”
Once she said that the conversation took a very different turn. Both she and her assistant were more vulnerable in their discussion and they were able to clear the air and put their friendship back on track.
We think this is a great example of showing compassion – we all experience intense emotions – but it made us wonder how people could choose compassion over being right.
Stop Trying to Be Right … You’ll Do Everyone a Favor
When you want to prove that you’re right, you’ll go to just about any length to do it. And, in most cases, that means you don’t mind steamrolling someone or pushing them down in order to prove a point.
“Being right comes from a place of ego and not from a place of wisdom and healing,” Deb says.
Setting aside your desire to be right and focusing on extending compassion will transform how you process the results of the 2016 election.
Setting aside your desire to be right and focusing on extending compassion to the people with whom you interact will transform how you process the results of the 2016 election, or any election, for that matter.
Wrapping It Up: Emotions Make Us Crazy, But Expressing Them the Right Way Makes Us Strong
Deb’s advice really opened our eyes to what’s possible for people who are feeling overjoyed, grieved, satisfied or frustrated during this election season.
Our brain is set up to help us process our emotions, which is something we tend to forget when fervor is running high on both sides of the political aisle. We tend to skip the processing part and head straight to Facebook to post the latest demeaning meme.
Remember that those initial feelings of rage and life-or-death are normal, but they aren’t meant to be the end of your emotional process. They are the first step.
When you feel yourself getting all riled up, stop and take a breath. Then take another one and another one. Your emotions and your body work together, so when you calm one you’re calming the other.
Then, take some time either to talk about your emotions with someone you consider safe or write them out on your computer or a piece of paper. Being specific is the key; get to the root of what’s bothering you.
Once you identify what’s going on in your mind and body, do a physical activity. Deb suggests heading out to nature if you can, or going to the gym and working out or doing yoga.
You should see a significant change in the way your body and mind feel. You’ll probably be calm, collected and able to think clearly.
More emotions are on their way, though – we get the sense that the country’s division will take some time to heal. So, remember to focus on compassion when you’re talking with someone about why you do or do not support President-elect Trump. Realize that you’re both probably feeling all kinds of emotions, and you both need a safe environment in which to share them.
And don’t forget the golden rule: Being right isn’t as good as being wise and promoting healing.
If we can leave you with one thought from our conversation with Deb, it’s that America is in a divided state that will only become unified through emotional intelligence, compassion, and wisdom.
“This election was so intense it’s taking longer than normal to process our emotions, but it will happen,” Deb told us. “We need to be patient. It needs time. It won’t be over quickly.”
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